Study Guide

Death of a Naturalist Themes

  • Man and the Natural World

    The title of "Death of a Naturalist" gives it away: nature is going to be a big part of this poem. And the poem delivers. Heaney loads this one up with natural description (albeit, sometimes unsavory natural description), and centers the whole shebang around the reproduction of frogs. The speaker has a conflicted relationship with nature. At first he's excited by the change of the season when spring comes along, bringing with it the familiar frogspawn that's so much fun to scoop up in jam jars (blech) and watch transform. The event at the end of the poem, however, changes his opinion. He encounters the reality of the frogs' reproduction, and is not only thoroughly grossed out by it, but frightened, too.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. As a reader, what is the effect of the more disgusting descriptions of nature in this poem? 
    2. Do you think Heaney wants the reader to be turned off by nature, or do you think he just wants to paint a realistic picture of it (good and bad)? 
    3. What was the most vivid description involving nature in the poem for you? How many (of the five) senses were engaged in the description? 
    4. Do you think the speaker's bad experience with the frogs at the end of the poem has turned him away from nature entirely? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Even though the poem describes some of the less beautiful aspects (a.k.a. the gross and icky bits) of nature, overall it still celebrates it.

    The speaker, though still connected to nature by the end of the poem, has become more wary of it, and knows that it's not all good, or all bad; it's not that simple at all. Who knew there was such a lesson to be learned from frogspawn?

  • Sex

    "Death of a Naturalist" isn't the sexiest poem we've ever read. Let's face it: rotting flax, sod stench, and slimy frogspawn isn't all that hot. But this poem is dealing with sex nonetheless, in a scientific, animal kingdom sort of way. The entire premise of the poem hinges on the reproduction of frogs. The only way for frogs to produce frogspawn is to mate. So, implicit behind all the curiosity of a young boy who seems to like science and nature is the discovery of how (frog) babies are born. This is his "birds and the bees" moment, except it's a little gross and a little more traumatic. Perhaps part of his horror is realizing this. For a lot of kids, sex seems pretty disgusting when they first learn about it, especially frog sex. Ew!

    Questions About Sex

    1. Does Heaney frame the reproductive process of frogs in a pleasant or unpleasant way? What examples from the poem support your answer? 
    2. At what point in the poem do you become aware that sexual reproduction is involved? 
    3. Do you think the speaker is completely aware that sex is involved in reproduction, or do you think he's still unsure? Why or why not? 
    4. What words in the poem could have a sexual connotation? Are there specific descriptions in the poem that don't directly relate to sex, but hint at it? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    The boy is doubly disgusted by the frogs' reproductive process, because he's of the age when any sex seems embarrassing and just plain gross.

    The boy knows that sexual reproduction is natural, and he's aware of the frogs' process, but that's not what alarms him at the end of the poem. Instead, it's the sheer amount of them, and their generally disgusting behavior. Frog overload, y'all.

  • Innocence

    The speaker in "Death of a Naturalist" is at the age where he still has a lot of childlike wonderment, but he's starting to learn how the world works. This can be a shocking and exciting time. On the one hand, he's super-psyched (as ever) about spring coming because he gets to collect the gooey, nasty, but undeniably fun, frogspawn and watch it change on his windowsill. Plus, he gets to learn about how the whole process works at school. From a distance this is all good, but that one hot day, when he learns the reality of frogspawn, things aren't so simple. He feels disgusted by the reality of the slimy frogs having mated to produce the spawn. He feels oddly guilty that in collecting the frogspawn he may have messed with the natural balance of things, so the big bullfrogs might feel vengeful toward him. Our speaker is no longer carefree and innocent. He knows more, he's experienced more, and he's finding out that the world is a complex and sometimes uncomfortable place.

    Questions About Innocence

    1. What do lines 16–18 ("The daddy frog was called the bullfrog / And how he croaked and how the mammy frog / Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was") tell you about the speaker's innocence?
    2. What about the speaker's curiosity and enthusiasm for the frogspawn (especially in the first half of the poem) makes him seem more innocent? 
    3. Does his teacher or his schooling do anything, in your opinion, to affect the speaker's innocence? What parts of the poem support your answer? 
    4. At the end of the poem, the speaker seems to have become aware of what the frogspawn is, where it comes from, and to whom it belongs. What about this newfound awareness affects his innocence?

    Chew on This

    At the beginning of the poem, Heaney shows the boy's excitement for the smelly, slimy, yucky, gross, and muddy things in nature because he wants to give the reader a sense of the young boy's innocent nature.

    By the end of the poem, the boy hasn't changed at all. Just because he sees something that frightens him at the flax dam doesn't mean he's going to think of frogs or frogspawn any differently. Sheesh.

  • Transformation

    The young speaker of "Death of a Naturalist" is going through a personal transformation. He's growing up, and changing the way he sees his surroundings. Alas, we can't be young forever! The flax is changing (rotting) in the dam, and of course the frogspawn is changing into… frogs. The poem opens in spring, which is always a great time of change (plants grow, and the landscape changes, and all sorts of animals besides frogs give birth in the springtime). This poem shows how the young speaker comes to realize and experience change, and how he deals with it. And let's face it, whether it means outgrowing your favorite pair of jeans, or going to a new school, change is never easy, is it?

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Why do you think Heaney sets this poem in spring? What is the effect in terms of change as a theme in this poem?
    2. How many instances of changes in nature can you find in this poem? 
    3. Do you think it's important that the speaker can actually watch the frogspawn change to tadpoles before his eyes in the jar? Why? 
    4. In what way(s) does the speaker undergo change in this poem?

    Chew on This

    Heaney sets the poem during springtime, when many changes in nature are underway, in order to highlight the changes the speaker is going through at the same time.

    The speaker is completely unaware of the personal changes he is undergoing, and that's why he feels so shocked and afraid by the end of the poem. Frogs can really bring about painful reflective moments.